What About an Inclusive Jewish Gap Year Program?

By Stephanie Millman Smerling

Over the past decade, gap year programs in Israel have become increasingly popular. In fact, MASA Israel Journey’s website lists 160 gap year offerings for students between high school and college from the North American Jewish community. What’s more, many colleges and universities are now encouraging future students to take a year off, finding that those who take this opportunity arrive for their freshman year more mature and ready to learn.

Yet, as I learned from personal experience, if you are a young Jewish adult with cognitive and social challenges, there are few if any gap-year options available.

Two of my daughters were able to participate in a transformative gap year in Israel. But the other, who has some learning and social challenges, was told there were no programs for her, which alienated her further from the Jewish community. I wanted to change this situation, and in 2013, I came up with the idea of Yozma (initiative,) a program that would give these young adults the support they need to spend a year living and learning in Israel, while gaining the life and social skills that would let them feel part of the Jewish community, succeed in college, and take their place as valued members of society.

I approached the leadership of the Nativ College Leadership Program, a popular gap year experience run by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. I shared with them the idea of incorporating college-bound students with cognitive and social challenges into the Nativ. They embraced the concept, became my fiscal sponsor and in 2014 we applied and received a Breakthrough Fund grant from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Yozma is an example of how an effective partnership among Jewish organizations can produce results in less than a year. The grant from JUF allowed me to work on the development of a business plan with UpStart Bay Area. And now, beginning in the fall of 2015, Yozma will be a new program track of Nativ.

Nativ immerses young adults into the diverse society of Israel. It includes a fall semester in which students choose either academic university classes for college credits, intensive Hebrew classes, or Judaic and Yeshiva studies, all intermixed with leadership training opportunities and trips. The second part of the year involves volunteer work, learning and teaching, and community living.

Students in Yozma will have the same opportunities, with adjustments made to things like the living environment, the academics, and the volunteer component to accommodate their special needs.

In the first year, the program will start with a small number of participants so the professionals involved can determine best practices. With the help of a specialized staff such as an onsite social worker and trained counselors with special needs experience, Yozma participants will go on the same trips, attend the same leadership seminars and educational programs as their peers on Nativ. There will be one counselor for every 2-3 students versus the 1 to 15-20 ratio for neurotypical students. These counselors will live in the same facility as the participants and be available to them 24/7.

Recognizing that everyone matters and can make a difference will ensure a robust future for the Jewish community.  Having exposure to the same opportunities as those who do not have challenges will allow our children to reach their highest potential and prepare to become productive members and future leaders. Yozma will provide a safe and secure environment in which these high school graduates can acquire life skills, gain self and social confidence, strengthen their Jewish identity, and form a deeper commitment to Israel. Participants will then assume the responsibilities of a college curriculum, and their communities will benefit from their active engagement in Jewish life.

Although this initiative is one small step in empowering these young adults, it will become a model for all of USCJ’s youth travel programs. By thoroughly documenting the process of creating and implementing this initiative, Yozma will help others in the Jewish and secular worlds learn from its successes and avoid potential pitfalls. Ultimately, we hope, inclusion will become the norm for all our programs, not the exception.

Stephanie Millman Smerling, Founder of Yozma (Initiative), is a social entrepreneur and Development professional. She is dedicated to ensuring that young adults from with neurobehavioral differences have the same opportunities as their peers to participate in programs that will enable them to become active participants in Jewish life. Stephanie has a Master Degree in Public Health.